Hallbury Summer – Episode Eighteen. Rhinemaiden

The story so far:

Joe Palliser, though torn between his moral responsibility to his friend Tom and his feelings for Emma, Tom’s wife, is nonetheless drawn towards buying a house in Hallbury. Meanwhile, he approaches a journalist from his local newspaper to learn more about the disappearance of Christian Matheson, a child abducted in Hallbury many years  before.  The fear is growing that his younger brother, Michael, may be implicated in Violet Parkin’s murder and even in the disappearance of the child.

Alone with his thoughts, he is asked for assistance by Jennifer, an attractive motorist apparently in distress.  He takes her to her hotel in his car and is briefly compromised by her advances, which he manages to resist.  However, the encounter has been observed, and photographed.  Jennifer is considerably more than she seems…

Wednesday dawned in shades of grey and in a while that grey became rain, and the rain became a sustained downpour.  Joseph drove into Braunston where, after no small amount of deliberation, he lodged an offer of three thousand nine hundred pounds with the agent handling the Lamb house.  There was no denying the conflict churning in his head:  Emma’s presence alone should have been enough to turn him away, to leave Tom, his friend, in married contentment.  Janice Regan’s vituperation was a voice not just her own, but of others who would count themselves the elders of the village.  Charker Smith, that excellently honed tool of destruction, waited only to get drunk enough before he came to avenge his brother; and when he came….Oh, Joseph!

So why was he not more afraid?

Well, a part of him certainly was – a part of him was terrified, but that part of his mind also saw the Lamb property as an excellent opportunity and of course, should he elect not to stay in Hallbury he could always find a tenant.  But there was another part that seemed to almost defy explanation, something more powerful, something real:  Hallbury was his home.  And that filled him with a courage and resolve that was extraordinary.  He could ride out as many troubles as there were in his desire to stay there, because there, the place – not a house, or a woman, or the sweet breath of country air – was where he belonged.   He had run from it once, when he had lacked experience in life to understand the importance of belonging:  he would not make that mistake again.

The morning was far from over when Joe entered the gravel drive of Maddockgate Manor.  Mrs Forster, the matron, admitted him when he pressed the visitors’ bell.

“Mr Palliser, isn’t it?  Didn’t we explain that Michael has been moved?”

Yes, Joseph acknowledged; but perhaps Mrs Forster didn’t know that Michael had absconded.  His family were naturally very anxious about him – did she have any idea if he had friends who would take him in?   No, Mrs Forster said after consideration, she didn’t.

“He used to visit a supervised house in Marsden, didn’t he?”  Joe suggested:  “Could he have gone there?”

“I shouldn’t have thought so. It would be like turning himself in, so to speak.  The owner is a qualified psychiatric nurse, who I’m sure would call us if Michael appeared without an escort.  He would call us, very probably.”

Joseph repeated Michael’s assertion that he was allowed from time to time to go out on his own.  This drew a surprised look from Mrs Forster, for whom even the thought of such liberty was clearly shocking.  Michael was delusional, she responded – he might have been convinced in his own mind that he enjoyed such privileges, but that did not necessarily make them real.  Nevertheless Joe had inadvertently struck a nerve.  He pressed home his advantage.  Suppose, for whatever reason, they were real?  Suppose Michael had been trusted, say, to run short errands on his own, suppose he had been able to sneak away?

He needed to talk to the nurse in charge in Marsden: see if there are connections the family knew nothing about.

The matron considered this.  “Would you wait here for a moment?”

She kept Joe waiting, in fact, for about ten minutes, while she disappeared into her office.  At length she returned.  Unsmiling, she placed a piece of paper in Joe’s hand.

“Mr Winter, the charge nurse, is in until about two o’clock.  I called him to say you were on your way:  I didn’t explain why.”

Joe embarked upon the road to Marsden-on-Sea, pondering the matron’s exact meaning.  Why had she elected not to tell this person the reason for his visit?  In spite of her defence of the nurse, did she suspect that Mr Winter’s care was not all it might be?

A buffeting onshore wind wrenched irritably at the Wolsey and hurled spray at it as he drove along Marsden’s courageous little esplanade.  Flashing neon bravely proclaimed ‘Non-Stop Bingo’, ‘Live Arcade’, ‘Fish and Chip Heaven’ to a scattering of the foolhardy and the half-drowned who ran from one venue to another, plastic macs gathered transparently against the elements.  A motley line of desperate Edwardian hotels displayed signs offering ‘Special Bank Holiday Rates’ – timely warning of the forthcoming holiday weekend.

But it was the sea, the battle-front between land and water, that drew Joseph here.  It was many years since he had seen the Channel in full spate, and there was a perverse veneration owed to power such as this.  White caps charging forth upon  the shore, chasing along quoins, leaping the sea wall.  Winging gulls, masters of their element, riding the storm like ethereal surfers:  these were things he loved.  Joe had been to Marsden many times and often on days like these, once with Emma, happy to walk beside him by the shore, the gale screaming through her bright hair, laughing at the whip of salt rain on her face – kisses on cold, wet lips, arms warm with love.

How could he ever have forgotten her?  How could he have put her, all this, aside so easily?  However could he turn away again?  As he drew up to the neatly-written address which lay on the passenger seat at his side it was not the surf still stinging in his eyes, but mourning for opportunities missed, for lost love.

Rosebank Crescent was ‘on the hill’; one of many streets lined by similar detached villas, all of which were in a state best described as ‘mature’. Number seventeen’s red roof-tiles were greyed by lichen, its rendered walls a spider-web of cracks.  There was putty missing from the window frames, and paint missing where putty was not.

Joe wielded a big brass knocker which projected from the front door like a grotesque nose.  The letter box drew up a flappy lip:

“Who’s that?”  A voice empty of any form of artifice.

“I’m Joe Palliser.”

“Hello Joe!”  The wind thrashed, the rain lashed.  The door remained closed.

“Can I come in?”

After an interval:  “Who is it?”

“I’m Joe.”

Suddenly the door was flung open to reveal a very tall, very wide young man whose ample features creased into a beatific smile:  “Hello Joe.  It’s windy!”

“Yes.”  Joe agreed.

“Shut that bloody door!”  Snarled a voice from the rear of the house.

“Come on.”  Said the large young man.  He ambled backwards into an entrance hall.  “I’m Terry.”  He held out a big hand which Joe shook warmly.  “How do you do, Joe?”

“How do you do, Terry?”

As if ignited by a fuse, Terry turned and walked rapidly away towards a door at the rear of the hall, his denims taut around stubby legs, faded carpet slippers shuffling on the parquet.  “I’ll get him.”  He said over his shoulder.

The hallway of the house was furnished unpretentiously, a barometer on the wall, a small hall table, a couple of upright chairs.  Its walls were papered with woodchip and painted in mint green, a pendant light hung from a textured ceiling.  The wind’s surreptitious intrusion rattled its doors.  It was a house, but it was not a home.

Terry had been gone no more than ninety seconds when a much sparer specimen of masculinity, clad in a thin black polo-neck sweater and checked flares appeared.

“Can I help you?”  his voice was a high tenor.  “I’m Morris Winter.”

Joe saw why Mrs Forster had registered some disquiet at his suggestion that he might visit here:  the professional title of ‘charge nurse’ did not hang easily upon Mr Winter, whose careless appearance, flabby, unshaven face and defensive look spoke of one expecting arrest rather than an expert carer.  Winter ran his fingers through fair, greasy locks which fell nearly to his shoulders.

“Joseph Palliser.  I believe Mrs Forster told you I was coming?”

“Yeah, she did.”  Winter frowned suspiciously; “You from the gov’ment?”

“No,  I’m Michael Palliser’s brother?  You remember Michael?  He comes to stay here from time to time.”

Winter’s expression brightened.  “Mikey!  Ah yes, Mikey!  Of course! Look, you better come in; have a cup of tea.  Terry – make this nice man some tea.”  He grinned a gappy grin:  “He’s a good kid, Terry.  He likes to make tea.”

Terry had reappeared and stood in the doorway behind Winter.  He nodded happily.  “Good tea!”

“No thank you Mr Winter, I’m not staying.”  Joe said hurriedly.  “I just wanted to ask a couple of quick questions, that’s all.”

“Well, fire away, then.  Yes, fire away!  Sure you won’t have some tea?”

“No, no thanks. I’m trying to trace anyone who knows Michael.  He’s allowed out, isn’t he – do you know if he sees any friends in the town?”

Winter’s brow furrowed but he made no attempt at denial.  “He always has money of his own, has Mikey – not like some of them.  I tell him; if you get thirsty or hungry, there’s cafes who’ll welcome us.  We know which ones, see?  And he treats us sometimes, don’t he, Terry?”

Terry nodded a happy affirmative.  “Mikey’s rich.”

“So he does go out – for how long, an hour, a day?  Does he ever stay out overnight?”

“Oh no, no more than a few hours!”  Winter shook his head.  “I tell him: ‘we got to be back by eight o’clock, Mikey’.  He always is.  I wouldn’t let him stay out overnight.”

“Did he go out the Friday before last?”

“Last time he was down here?  Might of, yes, I think he did.”

“And came back at about eight?”

“Yeah.”  Winter reflected.  “Got himself in a bit of a state, he did.  Does that from time to time, Mikey.  Had to give him a pill, that night.”

“Was he out longer that day – was he ever unsupervised?”

A flicker of concern crossed Winter’s face.  “No.  Did I say that?  No.”

“Who was with him, Mr Winter?”

“Well – I was, wasn’t I?”

At this, Terry’s moon-faced smile suddenly changed.  He raised an anxious finger, as if he had something to say if he were given permission.  Joseph picked up on the gesture:  “Can you help, Terry?”

Terry said to Mr Winter:  “You were with me.”

Winter glanced over his shoulder, saying quite sharply:  “No, you didn’t come with us, Terry – not that time.  It wasn’t your week.”

“You and me played draughts.”  Terry reminded him.

“No, you got it muddled up, Terry,”  Winter corrected.  “This was last week.  You weren’t down here last week.”

Terry’s brow creased in concern.  “Can’t play draughts when Mikey’s here.  He calls it ‘devil game’ and he hits the board.  We only play when…”

“Terry!”  Winter’s voice took on a dangerous edge:  “You weren’t here, mate.”

Terry was not to be repressed:  “Mikey went out so we played draughts.”

Winter smiled, a thin, unconvincing smile:  “He gets confused.”  He said.

Terry’s face displayed anything but confusion.  Joe, worried that Terry might be at risk if he persisted, took up the thread hurriedly:  “Supposing Michael should get out – slip away – on his own, is there anyone in the town or nearby he might confide in, or who he might call a friend – apart from here?”

“No, not that I can think.  Not that it could happen.”  Mr Winter’s rictus smile was becoming irritating.  “I’m sorry I can’t help you clear up your little mystery, whatever it is.”

In the background, Terry had begun to rock on the balls of his feet.  This display of agitation, though silent, was not lost on Winter:  Joe could see his eyes shifting, his jaw starting to work:  “If there’s nothing else?”

“Thank you for your help.”  Said Joe, turning to leave.  “If you think of anything…”

“I’ll tell the proper people, yes.”

Suddenly Terry’s voice rang out:  “Mikey went out.  Him, he was worried, ‘cause Mikey didn’t come back, not ‘til very late!  Very, very late!  We played….”

Winter’s voice sliced through the outburst as finely as a razor:“Terry!  No cake!”

Whatever the threat could mean, it silenced Terry.  His face fell, his body collapsed as though he had been punctured.  The prolonged “Ooooh” he uttered had an undertone of fear.

Winter’s visage was contorted by desperation:  “See here, Mr Palliser:  outsiders, they don’t know what its like, this job.  It don’t pay well, there’s never a moment when you can…alright, maybe Mikey does get out from time to time.  He’s usually OK, yeah?  He’s fine.  Just goes out in the town, has a little walk along the front, drops into a café or two.  He never does no harm to anyone, never gets in anyone’s way; only the other week – I don’t know – something must have gone wrong:  somebody had a go at him, or something.  See?”

Joe found himself nodding, almost sympathising with this tired and probably inadequate man who was expressing sentiments he had experienced himself so many times.

“Don’t worry;” he heard himself saying; “I’ve no reason to persecute you. I needed to know, that’s all.”

At the door, Winter took him by the arm.  “You won’t say nothing?”  Joe shook his head.

“The Shilling Café,”  Winter said.  “On Duke Street, just off the Esplanade.  He goes there.”

Outside on the street, the wind had increased in fury.  A tidal surge was carrying full waves over the seawall, thrusting angrily into ornamental garden plots, thrashing across the esplanade, deserted now, the whole seafront empty except for a few brave walkers who tempted and teased at nature, staring her in her raging eye as she lunged for them with boiling cascades.

The Shilling Café proclaimed its raison d’etre on a hand-written sheet of paper taped to its window:  ‘Meal for a Shilling!’   The facia celebrated its cheapness:  within, two naked strip lights threw a soulless glow over cream walls, bentwood chairs and bare tables; nearly all of which were empty.  Behind the counter amid an array of stainless steel and china, a small woman in a floral apron welcomed Joseph expansively.

“Well now!  Here’s someone with a taste for adventure! I was just thinking about closing, dear.  But seeing as its you…”

Joe ordered a cup of tea and a ham roll and while he waited for them to appear, he asked questions;  “Do you know someone called Michael, or Mikey, who comes in here?”

“Oh, Mikey!  He’s one of Morris Winter’s guests.  Yes, I know him, don’t I?”

“Has he been in here recently?”

“Mikey?  Why he’s in and out all the time, dear – whenever he’s down here.  He’s a bit mad, mind. He calls me his Flossy Hilda – told me once I reminded him of a Rhinemaiden – I ask you!”

“Really?”  Joe felt he ought to keep the conversation to essentials – who knew where Mikey’s mind might have taken him next?  “Was he in here on his own, the Friday before last?”

“I can tell you he wasn’t,” said the woman, “’cause it was his week and I laid in a lasagne for him specially.  He likes lasagne.”  She shook her head.  “Then he didn’t come.  Set your clock by him, normally.”

“I don’t suppose he’s been in since?  In the last couple of days, for instance?”

“Well no.  But he wouldn’t be, dear.  It’s not his week.  Are you looking for him then?”

“I’m his brother.  We seem to have lost touch, that’s all.”  Joe explained.  “Did he ever have company?”

“His Brother?  Well, I’ll never be!  Mind, I can see the likeness there.  Morry Winter must have brought him in the first time, ages back, but no-one since.  Oh, wait, now, there was that well-dressed fella – a couple of times, him.  Not long ago, either.”

“Can you describe him?”  Joe asked.

“Well-dressed, dear, like I said.  A nice suit:  not John Colliers, if you see what I mean?  Sort of thirties, medium height – dark hair, I think.  Proper nice looking wasn’t he?”

“What sort of nice looking?”  Joe persisted:  “What colour eyes – large nose, small nose?”

“Well, sort of average, I think.  Here’s your roll, dear.”

Try as he would, Joe could not elicit further detail concerning this mystery man, so he quaffed his tea and an amply buttered ham roll with a taste memory that would stay with him for the rest of the afternoon.  As he left, the little woman in the apron asked: “You’ll know, won’cha?  These Rhinemaidens – what do they do, exactly?”

Fleeing the gale, Joe hunched into his collar, making for the sanctuary of his car so quickly he failed to notice an Austin Princess that was parked across the street.  He knew for certain now – Michael had been away from his carers and alone on the day Violet Parkin died.  Hallbury was not so far away – had he also been there?  Had he, with the extraordinary strength of madness, wielded the pitchfork that had dispatched the old lady so cruelly?  How else could he know the precise manner of her death? As Joe made his way back to Hallbury, counting off the miles, his mind was intrigued by a new mystery:who was the man in the suit; the good looking man who was so completely unmemorable?  Whoever he was, Michael had clearly known him, and their meetings, or at least one of them, would have had to be by arrangement; unless, of course, this man was following Michael…

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit:  Brandon Molitwenik on Unsplash

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Seven    Ship of Ghosts

The story so far:

After an uncomfortable encounter with the police, Joseph Palliser decides to visit Michael, his younger brother, who is resident in a nursing home; but the ‘bus trip which takes him there evokes harsh memories of his bullied childhood, and his involvement in the car accident  which killed his tormentor, Rodney Smith (Charker Smith’s brother).  He is reminded of this, and the subsequent rumours which drove him into leaving Hallbury all those years ago, as the ‘bus passes the place where the accident happened.

Joe remembers his first car and the modifications he made which led to his implication in Rodney’s end.  If he were to try to forget there are others in Rodney’s home village of Abbots Frsicombe ready to remind him, like village busybody Mary Harkus,.  She warns Joe to beware of Charker…

By the time the bus reached Maddockgate, its holidaymaking passengers’ faith had been repaid.  The rain had stopped.  Over hills which rose steeply across the southern horizon a watery sun elbowed its way through the clouds, endowing wet-leaved hedges with a welcome sparkle.  Joseph quitted the bus here at a request stop on the corner of Manor Lane beside a telephone box.  A discreet white signpost declared that Maddockgate Manor Nursing Home was a half-mile away, so he set off up the lane with a spring in his step.

‘The Gate’ was a large Victorian manor house of red sandstone standing upon a rise in five acres of its own grounds.    Despite its grim age it was far from the worst place to be sheltered if you were one of those who society deemed insane.  The dayroom Joseph was shown into had freshly painted walls and large bay windows through which what sun there was shone a welcome.  The leather chairs looked comfortable and there was a studious, subdued air about its five inmates who, distributed about the room, were each engrossed in something, though precisely what might have been hard to define.

“Michael,” The nurse called.  “Look who’s come to see you!”

He rose from an oxblood red winged chair at the end of the room; a tall, gaunt figure with scant, wispy brown hair and a patch over one eye, upon whose face flesh was tensioned like canvas on a stretcher.  It was an old canvas, that face, painted by a master perhaps: lined and faded with wide mouth slashed darkly across it as though opened by a knife.  His check shirt, covered in turn by a yellow V-neck pullover drooped about a thin neck and long, bent body.  Baggy grey trousers went the rest of the way to the floor, revealing the toes of tartan slippers peeking furtively from beneath their turn-ups.

Joseph barely recognised that wasted figure:  he had to try hard to remember that Michael was younger than him.  Yet, for all his physical impoverishment, Michael had a certain nobility about him, the bearing of a gentleman not favoured by fortune.  He waved Joseph regally to a chair on his right.

“Welcome, stranger!  Come and sit before me.”

It was clear that Michael did not know who he was, Joseph thought.  And why should he?  Drawing closer, he could see his scars had faded considerably from childhood days, although the long one which had all but taken out one eye was still obvious.  It vanished behind the eye patch to re-emerge below it, a savage weald he guessed would never go.

“Do you bring news from the east?”  Michael enquired anxiously:  “Come, tell me at once.  Are our armies lost?”

“Michael, I didn’t come from the east.  Well, not today, anyway.”

“Damn!  So they have us!    I’ll have to break it to the men.”  Michael sat back in his chair, this time crossing his legs as though they were upon a large cushion and saying, in a thick Arabian accent:  “Sit with me.  You honour my tent.”  Then, with startling clarity:  “What brings you here, then, Joseph?”

Joe’s face must have shown his relief.  Michael gave a slow chuckle.  “Well, you expect it, don’t you?  Coming in here, I mean?  Got to give my public what they want to see.  Jesus, Joey,  how many years has it been?  I barely recognised you.”

Joseph returned his brother’s smile.  “Too many,” he said; “too many.   How do they treat you here?  Are you well?”

“I’ve been ill from time to time, who isn’t?  Medication, Joey; that’s the answer for everything here.  Avoiding medication is the secret of happiness, I’ve found.  They teach you that.”

“How do you mean?”

“Tell me, dearest brother; what do you think of this place?  Pleasant – airy?  It is, of course, if you pass through here for a day.  You might even stay for a week and find it educational, at the very least: soft bed, a radio in your room.  But if you stay here for a year, five years, seventeen years….”  Michael leaned forward, speaking confidentially.  His breath had a slight menthol smell.  “You count the blemishes in the paint on the walls.  You know intimately every leaf on every bush in that garden, you know everything about everybody who cries in the middle of the night and it’s a bloody prison, then.”  He sat back.  “But you don’t protest.  You don’t raise your voice.  If you do, you’re ill, so you must have medication.  Medication messes with your head, it twists up your nerves and makes you wild inside but you can’t do anything.  Illness is a crime in here, and medication is the punishment:  a sort of perverse Christian Science, if you like.  You met the matron on your way in, I expect?  Frau Forster?  I call her Mary Baker Eddie – got away with it to her face for years, until she looked it up one day.  I was medicated for a week.

Michael’s face split in a thin smile.  “But things aren’t so bad now.  I don’t get ill very often, and I’m allowed out, you know.  I have friends in Marsden where I can go and stay for a few days if I want.  And from time to time I can take myself on days out if I’m good.  So, you – where have you been all this time?  What have you been doing with yourself?”

Joseph knew the question was coming, of course.  He re-told the story he had given to Julia and Owen, leaving nothing out.

When he had finished, Michael nodded sagely.  “Children of demons.”

The remark took Joseph aback:  “What?”

“Demon-spawn:  they feed on us, Joey.  They’re everywhere.”

It was the first serious intimation Michael had given that he was still unwell.  Joseph disguised his reaction to it as best he might by managing a bleak smile.  “True.”  He said.  He was beginning to wonder why he had come.

Together the brothers opened the scrapbook of their respective memories, sharing recollections of the past, speaking a little of the present, but never of the future.  Because, Joe would have to acknowledge, Michael did not have a future he would want to discuss.  There was no further mention of predatory demons.

Something interested Joseph.  “You haven’t asked about Ian.”  He said.

Michael returned him a blank, almost glazed look.  “No.”

“Why not?  He’s doing very well for himself, he’s….”

Michael cut him short.  “There are some things in here; things close to you, you have to forget.  Memories are bad for you, Joey.”  It was as though he had slammed a door.  There was obviously no room for further talk about their elder brother.

“Oh, I have some hot local news!”  Joseph tried to restore some lost ground:  “You remember Violet Parkin, the big woman who used to do all that stuff for the church?  She’s been murdered, Mikey!  What do you think of that?”

Whatever reaction he had anticipated, it was not the reaction he was given.

“Ah.”  Michael said.  His head began to nod in affirmation; not quite naturally.  It was an exaggerated, almost stylised movement.  “That I do know.”

“Really?”  Joseph said, very carefully:  “Who told you?”

Michael’s eyes met his own with a look in them that was remote, as if he were staring at something inside himself.  “There are things I know.  You must accept that.”  He spread his arms, slowly raising them above his shoulders, hands limp and drooping, as if in crucifixion.  With horror Joseph realised he was imitating the position in which Violet Parkin’s body was discovered.

“How do you….”

Michael dropped his arms, raised a hand in a quieting gesture:  “There are things I know.”

“I see.”  Joseph chose his words.  “So do you know why she had to die?  Because that’s what puzzles me, Mikey – what could a woman like that have done to get herself killed?”

“Who have you spoken to about this?  It’s vitally important!”

“Oh, most of the village, I suppose.  Everyone wants to discuss it.  Why, Mikey?  I barely knew the woman.  And why is it vital?  And how the hell do you ‘know’?”

“I just do.”  Michael’s thin features were almost lupine; had Joseph noticed that before?  Or was his face changing?  His hands had begun to twitch, stretching their long, skeletal fingers and curling.  He had begun that strange smoothing gesture he had shown to Aunt Julia once, at a breakfast table, a long time ago.

“Look, Michael, I don’t want to distress you.  Let’s change the subject, yes?”

“I’m not distressed, brother – not for me.  I’m distressed for you; for all you once knew and you’ve now forgotten; for the Earth-Lore that was yours to take and is lost now.  You left the pack, didn’t you?  You should have stayed.  In the pack you learn.  It teaches you your place in the order of things, who is first to the kill; who takes the first bite.  Oh, the glory in that first bite, Joe!  I know because they’ve tried to keep me away – tried for years.  They try, Joey!  They don’t know the pack is inside me.  They can’t know!”

A quiet voice spoke at Joseph’s shoulder.  “Mr Palliser?  I think we ought to let Michael rest for a while if you don’t mind?”

Joseph nodded.  “I’m going now, Mikey.  I’ll be back soon, though, Okay?”

There was no other description to fit it:  Michael bared his teeth.  “Talk to Ned Barker.”  He growled.  “Talk to him, Joey.  Do it before it’s too late!”

The nurse, a pretty, petite girl in a neat blue uniform, led Joseph from the room.  She gave a meaningful nod to a male nurse who encountered them at the door.

“We’ll take good care of your brother, Mr Palliser; don’t worry.  He gets excited like this sometimes.  It soon passes.”

“Is there a doctor around – anyone who can explain his symptoms?”

“I’m not allowed to discuss the patients.  I’ll see if Doctor  Bernowski’s available, if you’d like to wait?”

Bernowski was a man of challenged stature, with piercing eyes behind rimless spectacles.  “You are fortunate to catch me, Mr Palliser.  I have much to do, you see?”

“Thank you for sparing me the time.  What is wrong with Michael?”

Bernowski shrugged.  “Essentially he is brain-damaged – his malady is a legacy of the accident in his childhood, and the trauma associated with it:  as to its manifestation, in these cases it is so difficult to say.  Often we work for years and years and never find a cause.  I thought at first schizophrenia, but now I think more likely a personality disorder.  It is not harmful anyway, and he has a good life here.”

“He told me he’s allowed out.  Is that true?”

“Not strictly.  We have – how you call them – sheltered accommodation in some places, where they can go for a few days.  They are always supervised.”

“In Marsden on Sea?”

“Yes.  This I believe.”

“And was he there last week?”

“He was due a visit, I think.  You must ask the Matron that.  She will tell you.”

Joseph waited a further ten minutes for Mrs Forster, who was a friendly, tall woman with a frank, professional smile.  Yes, Michael had been on a ‘visit’ last week.  He had stayed in Marsden but, no, she was sorry, they did not give out the address.

“The people who perform the service for us have no visiting arrangements, you see.  But it is one of the advantages we offer our patients here.”

“I’m impressed.  The National Health Service never ceases to surprise me.”

Mrs Forster treated Joseph to a bemused glance.  “Mr Palliser, we are not a National Health Service hospital.  Maddockgate Manor is a private concern.”

By the time Joseph returned to Little Hallbury it was early evening, a weak sun had yielded once more to heavy cloud, and there was a far-away drum-beat of thunder.  He had questions to ask.

“Aunt Julia; who pays for Michael to stay there?  It’s quite expensive, isn’t it?”

Julia looked puzzled.  “I thought you knew that, dear.”

“Until I asked yesterday I didn’t even know where he was. “

His aunt shifted her gaze uncomfortably.  “Well then, I suppose you are owed an explanation.  Your parents left money in trust for whoever looked after you.  We became your guardians, so their will left us free to dispose of that part of their estate as we saw fit.  Michael’s care was the obvious solution.”

“So we should have had some money coming to us, Ian and I?”

“Any residue would have been passed on to you at the age of twenty-one: but with Michael the way he is, dear….”  Julia left the sentence open.  “Owen discussed all this with Ian and yourself years ago.  You must have forgotten.  Now, what would you like for your tea?”

Nothing simple:  the answers, if they were there, begged questions and those questions spawned more questions still.  Joseph went to his bed that night with questions spiralling through his brain.  Somehow Julia’s answer did not satisfy him:  his father, or so he had always been told, was a civil servant:  assiduous in his career, yes:  frugal in his habits no doubt; but able to finance the fees of Maddockgate Manor for the whole of Michael’s lifetime?  No.

That night, Joseph drifted like a ship of ghosts into a crewless, aimless sleep.  Without any obvious reason, Violet Parkin’s death had become important to him.  She had died in a manner wholly inappropriate for a god-fearing woman – with no explanation – none at all.  Yet Michael knew something – thirty miles away and never without someone to keep watch over him – he seemed to be convinced of a dangerous secret pertaining to that grisly event for which Ned Barker, the landlord of The King’s Head could provide an answer.

The next morning the police came again.  This time the young constable was accompanied by an older man:

“Detective Sergeant Stonebridge, Mr Palliser.  Can we have a word?”

While the young constable dithered by the French windows,  DS Stonebridge perched on the arm of a chair, reminiscent, Joseph thought, of detectives he had seen on television.

“You haven’t been quite honest with us, Mr Palliser.”

Joseph suppressed an inner tremor:  “What do you mean?”

“You told my assistant here you arrived at Braunston on the…what was it?…”  He consulted a notebook; a ragged-edged affair produced from his trouser pocket:  “Ten-o-five am train from Paddington.  Correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you got to Abbots Friscombe at about four thirty.  Is that right?”

“Yes.  It should have been four-twenty-five, but the train was late.  The train usually is late.”

“Then you took the four forty-five bus from the station?”

“Didn’t I already say that too?”

“Well yes, Mr Palliser, yes you did.  Trouble is, though, it doesn’t quite square.  Like, for example, if the ten-o-five out of Paddington got to Braunston in time, which it did, more or less, why wasn’t you on the earlier train out of Braunston?  Then you’d have arrived in Abbots Friscombe in time to catch the three-thirty ‘bus.  That would have got you here at three forty-five, Mr Palliser.”

“True.  But I didn’t.  I missed it.  My London train was a little late arriving, and I don’t like to use the lavatories on trains.  When I got to Braunston I needed to…well, to freshen up, shall we say?  And I missed the two fifty-five for Friscombe.”

The detective sergeant nodded.  “I see.  So you’re saying….”

“I’m saying I was on the four o’clock train from Braunston.  I got to Abbots Friscombe at four thirty, in time for the four forty-five ‘bus.”

“And you want to stand by that statement, Mr Palliser, do you?”

Joseph gritted his teeth.  “Can you tell me the problem here?”

The detective shifted in his chair.  “The problem:  all right, Mr Palliser, I’ll tell you the problem.  No-one can remember you, either on the four o’clock train from Braunston, or on the four forty-five ‘bus.  There are two elderly passengers who do think they remember you, however:  but they tell me they were on the three thirty ‘bus.”  He leaned forward.  “If that were true, it would put you in Little Hallbury well before four pm, which was when Mrs Parkin died:  now, Mr Palliser – you tell me the problem?”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit:  Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Six The Vale

“Ciggy?”  Bea Ferguson waved an open pack of Rothmans towards Patrick.  “Oh, you don’t, do you?  Do you mind if I do?  I’m absolutely gasping.”

Bea had once pronounced herself deeply impressed with Patrick Hallcroft.  When her best friend Karen Eversley had told her she was dating him, she might even have felt a little jealous (had she been unmarried, of course).  Patrick Hallcroft?  He had to be the most eligible male in Caleybridge, no joking!  But now?

Seeing him slumped in his chair she even wondered if he was on her side anymore?  He seemed to her defeated, lessened, weary.  His eyes lacked that infectious energy that had warmed her the first time they met and talked.  Now, the morning life of the Trocadero coffee bar jostled about him unheeded – one or two of the lads, one or two of the girls who circulated dropped a word of greeting to him but he gave them little sign of recognition in return.  Around the tables there were those who, throwing covert glances in his direction talked behind their hands, and they clearly troubled him.

“You saw the Sunday ‘Paper?”  He asked.

“Everyone has, darling.  At least you got demoted to an inside page.”

“’Heir to Carpet Baron’s Millions Jilted’?  It’s hardly going to help us find Karen, is it?”

Bea shrugged.  “It’s the Sunday Record, what did you expect?  That grotty little Leathers man’s stuff is always like that.  I’m surprised the story got in at all, considering.  The editor must have had a nice holiday in Beaconshire, or something.  ‘Harterport Riots’ and a jilted millionaire all in one issue?  It’s better than the ‘Herald’.”

“Anything’s better than the ‘Herald’ – though they didn’t run our story at all.”

“At least you tried.  Come on then, you promised to update me and you’re also buying me lunch.  Technically that means you’re dating a married woman, Patrick.  So the least you can do…”

“Would a timeline help?”

“Timelines are always good.”

“Right; Saturday morning.  I already told you I was there when the Harterport fight kicked off, and what I saw on the way back to pick up Amanda.”

“Your ‘Sprog’, as you call the poor mite. Just nourish my poor little brain for a minute.  Why didn’t you follow those three cars?  Karen would have.”

“Oh yes.  And I can imagine the thoughts that would have been going through Amanda’s mind as she waited at the school gates, watching three large black cars go past, with her brother’s car tanking after them!”  Patrick rejoined.  “Although,” he admitted to himself, “I did think about it.”

“But you didn’t.  You collected your Sprog, then you took her back to that boathouse thingy. You looked inside, and you thought you saw Karen’s car…”

“No ‘thought’ about it!  At least give me a hearing!”

“Where next?”

“I didn’t want to go to the police.  All I would get from them would be a warning about wasting police time or something and anyway.  I wanted someone to believe me when I told them what I saw.”  Patrick thought for a second.  “No, wait.  That isn’t what I wanted.  I needed my father, specifically my father, to believe what I saw.”

“Why?  Does he have his doubts?  More to the point, do you?  My god, Patrick!”

“Yes, he’s been wary of the kidnapping story from the start.  And Dad, he’s kind of the voice of logic in my life, you know?  I needed him to believe in me, so I went directly to him.  I didn’t even take Sprog home first, because his office is nearer – he works Saturdays, of course.  It was a struggle, but I got him to return with me to see the boathouse for himself.  Dad had a job to get out, some kind of contract up north.  It wasn’t much of a delay though.  We were there by one-thirty.”

“No car?”

“How did you know that?”

“I didn’t.  I guessed.  By the time you got your Dad to look into the boathouse Karen’s car was gone.  It seems to be the way your luck is running, Patrick.  Bad karma!”

“Not only Karen’s car; there was an old Riley in there and the four motorbikes I saw on the Harterport Esplanade – all gone!  The double doors of the place were open like they hadn’t been closed in years, and – I don’t know – it looked like the floor had been swept, or something.  A neglected Pathfinder wouldn’t be that easy to move, they must have trailed it, so someone had been very busy.  Anyway, that was when the recriminations started.”

“Your old man didn’t believe you?  No, wait – brains, Bea!  He must have done – Amanda saw the car too, yeah?”

“Our little snake!  Oh, it was my fault, I suppose.  When I initially broke the boathouse window to see inside she was demanding to be lifted so she could also see, but I was scared we’d be caught.  I didn’t want to put her at risk, so I didn’t actually help her see for herself.  ‘I didn’t see any cars’ was the exact phrasing the little bigot used, and she stuck to it, too.  All the way home she was delicately suggesting I was under stress and I might need medical attention.” Patrick sighed heavily, “Maybe she’s right; that’s what Dad thinks.”

His hand was resting on the table.  Bea squeezed it consolingly.  “No, mate, she isn’t right.  Go on, fill in the rest.”

“My mother lived up to her promise.  She tried to get me an appointment with Sir Clive Webster, the Lord Lieutenant?  She knows him, of course. Who doesn’t she know?”

“Isn’t he supposed to be ill?  It was on the local news.  He had a heart attack or something.”

“He’s had about five, as far as I can gather.  You’re right, though.  His secretary fixed me up to see his deputy, Norman Wilson.   That was yesterday, and it was why I ‘phoned you.  Because I hoped I’d have some news for us this morning.”

“And..”

“And I saw him.”  Patrick was studying his hands, avoiding Bea’s eyes.  “I wanted you to keep some faith in me.  I haven’t been kicking my heels all this time, I’ve been back to Nowhere Lane again this weekend, and ‘phoning anyone who might know something, like the farmer who owns the land next to Boulter’s Green, and the Driscombes; I tried them. Not with any success, but I tried.”

Bea took a firmer grip on Patrick’s hand.  “Pat!  Avoiding the question, yeah?  What happened with Wilson?”

“He’s a strange guy.  Enigmatic, I think that’s the word.  Has a big house just outside Upcote, he dresses a bit like my Dad when he’s home;  corduroys, sandals, t-shirt, that sort of thing.  I didn’t have to tell him who I was or why I’d come, he already knew.  Much more than my mother told him.  He already knew.”

“Well, what did he say?  Can he do anything?”

“It wasn’t that kind of an interview, Bea.”

#

The Wilson residence exuded an atmosphere of quiet, unassuming wealth.   Red brick for a first storey, hung tiles for a second, its small sashed windows allowed no glimpse of the home they concealed.  The long façade had about it the fade of sanguinity, the blush of years; the cars parked in its courtyard, a Lanchester and a Bentley, reflected a required perfection that never needed to consider pennies counted, or pounds earned.

All the more surprising, then, when Patrick met its shuffling owner.  Karen, who had met with Wilson, had little prepared him with her description because she had paid scant attention to it, dismissing him as a nervous man of no great age, and under-confident.  The man who opened his front door to Patrick was someone much older than this description, and altogether more self-assured.

“Hallcroft, isn’t it?  Come in, young man.”

There were further surprises to come.  Patrick was shown into a warmly panelled room with old leather-covered furniture and many shelves of books, all professionally bound and uniformly severe.  A pair of green chesterfields dominated the centre of the room, seated upon one of which was as large and overstuffed a man as Patrick had ever seen.

“This is Chief Constable Vincent Carmody, Hallcroft.”  And Wilson added, pointedly,  “Who is, as I’m sure you know, Superintendent of Police in Beaconshire.”  Patrick moved forward to extend his hand, but Carmody neither moved nor spoke.   “Now, why did you want to see me?  Your mother was most insistent.”

Patrick instantly identified the intent to intimidate him but was nonetheless taken aback by it. Was Carmody present by chance or design?  He had to clear his throat before he responded.   “I wanted to see you concerning the disappearance of Karen Eversley.  I believe you met her.”

Wilson raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

“Well, she was working on a case you presented to her.  A missing persons enquiry, into someone called Gasser – I’m sorry – Gavin Woodgate.  Miss Eversley recounted your meeting in some detail, Mr Wilson.  I am sure you remember.”

Wilson and Carmody exchanged glances.  “And if I assure you I don’t remember?”

“Then I would have to ask you why your memory is so selective?”

Carmody’s voice was like the rumble of distant thunder.  “Impudent whelp, aren’t you?  Why are you here, boy?”

“To find Karen,”  Patrick retorted.  “I was hoping to enlist Mr Wilson’s help. but since you are here, sir, to ask why the police under your command seem so uncooperative in securing her return.  They’ve done precisely nothing, and they seem intent upon impeding me!”

Wilson cut back in, allaying or delaying an explosion from Carmody;  “I gave no such instructions, Hallcroft.  If Miss Eversley was asked to pursue an enquiry it was extremely confidential in nature.  It seems that she chose to betray our confidence, doesn’t it, in sharing details with you and with others.”

“If she did it was only to defend herself against heavy-handed tactics from your friend Frank Purton.  Now you’re trying the same heavy-handedness on me – for what reason, I wonder?  Somebody has Karen Eversley, Mr Wilson.  I will find out who.”

“Whilst I am sympathetic to your emotional involvement, young man, I assure you that you are mistaken.  Certain persons – I shan’t say name them – and I are very disappointed in Miss Eversley’s behaviour.  She is not ‘missing’, she has simply gone.  She betrayed our confidence, dropped our case into the mess she had made, then moved away, possibly to the Continent, to escape the repercussions.  She sent a letter to that effect to her parents.  I take it you have read that?  After all, she dropped you too, did she not?”

Carmody’s eruption happened.  “I won’t stand for any more of this!  See here, Hallcroft:  the woman’s made a bolt for it; there’s no better explanation.  Nor is there any evidence to the contrary, so I’m giving you a warning.  My force is facing a lot of challenges at the moment, not least of which is greater intervention from a larger, regional authority.  The last thing we need is a public nuisance and we will have you off the streets if you try to create one.  Is that understood?  Is that final enough for you?”

“Public nuisance?”

“You’re persistently wasting police time, calling the integrity of my officers into question, and harassing innocent citizens.  Your activities have entailed a number of petty crimes, of which threatening behaviour is one.  If my officers hear one more peep out of you, if they get one more complaint, you’ll be up before the Magistrates so fast those clumsy feet of yours will barely touch the ground.  For heaven’s sake show him out, Norman.  I‘m sick of the sight of him!”

#

“Unbelievable!”  Bea shook a troubled head.  “And that was it?”

“Not quite.”  As he – what would you say – showed me out?  Chucked me out? – Wilson said I should ‘think of my career’.  A police record wouldn’t go down well with the local authority; not his exact words, but close enough.”

“It’s not good, yeah?”  Bea murmured, and if Patrick had observed his companion more closely, he would have noticed how close she was to tears.  “Poor Karen.”

“They’re very sure of themselves, aren’t they?”  Patrick said, tight-lipped,  “Very professional.  They recognised me, or my car, when they passed me on Quays Lane and within an hour, probably, they’d cleaned that boathouse out; just like they cleared Karen’s apartment, just like they got to her mother and frightened her off.   And then, finally, last night…”  He broke off, alarming Bea, who could see the colour draining from his face.  For a moment she feared that he, not she, would break down.  But he took a breath, gathered himself, and resumed.

“I dropped into the Council offices because in the end I do have to go back to work, and I needed a little encouragement, I guess.  A few of us went on to The Hunters for a drink or two, then a meal, so it was quite late before I headed home.  I saw the red glow against the sky.  Oh, Bea, you’ve no idea what that’s like, the nagging fear that gets more certain with every turn in the road!    From telling yourself it can’t be, to the inescapable conclusion that it is – then the commotion in the drive, the blue flashing lights.”  Patrick took a deep breath; “Then seeing my Dad broken, his shoulders slumped and his expression, oh God his face!  Everything that inspired love in him was in that barn, his precious cars, tools, even his bloody lawnmower!  All gone.   I’ve never seen a fire that fierce before.  I never want to see its like again.”

“You think?”

“Of course I think!  I was warned, wasn’t I?  Stay away from Karen Eversley; I was warned. Do you know what will always stick in my memory?   There were three fire engines there, and there were three crews doing their bloody damnedest to protect the house (because that could have gone up too), to rescue something from the wreckage.  One police car turned up – one!  A panda car with two coppers in it who spent their time leaning against their car bonnet looking at me and sniggering like frigging school kids!  I doubt if they’ll even bother to file a report!”

Patrick drew himself up.  “Anyway, nobody slept last night.  It was sunrise before they got the fire out.  It’s early days yet, but the fire guys found remains of a device with a timer.  It was placed under the fuel tank Dad kept in there, so they think that started the fire.  Heaven knows when it was planted; yesterday, probably, maybe before.

“Bea, I spoke to my Dad this morning…”

Bea interrupted him,  “You think she’s dead, don’t you?”

“I can’t answer that…”

“You do!  You think this mad bastard took her and used her, and he’s left her in a ditch, somewhere!  And she’ll be cold, and alone, and it could be months, years before they find her, and he gets away with it!  He just huddles up in his spider-hole and waits for the next victim.  This will happen again, Patrick!  Again!”

“I don’t know if she’s dead or alive, Bea.  I’ve kept hoping, I’ve kept believing.  But there’s a family – my family – to consider.  You, too.  I might be putting you in danger just by being with you.”

“I don’t care.  She’s my friend,  she was always my friend.”

“But still; like I said, Dad’s always been the sober voice, you know?  Right from wrong, good from bad, all that?  This morning, though, he was very…I don’t know; humble, I suppose.  I’ve never seen him that way.  In spite of what he believed he stood back when I began this,.  He didn’t – he wouldn’t – hold me back.  This morning he begged me, there’s no other word for it.  He wanted me to admit this thing is too big to fight, and he’s right, it is.  He wanted me to think what might happen if I go on, to Gabby, to Amanda, to mother…”

“So you’re giving up.”

“In my heart, no.  Although to be honest, I’ve nowhere else to go, and no idea where to look, now.  I’ve asked everything of everyone everywhere.”   Patrick sighed.  “I haven’t stopped missing her and her image is as fresh in my head as it ever was.  I wish I knew a way to carry on with the search, Bea, but I don’t.   Not without causing more harm.”

Bea shook her head, her tears undeniable now.  “You are, you’re giving up!  Oh, I don’t blame you, I’d even do the same in your place, probably.  It’s like being so close to the truth and then…I mean, you drew the attention of the Chief Constable, for Pete’s sake!”

“I know,”  Patrick acknowledged miserably.  “I will try to find a way to do more, but not if it means putting someone else in danger.  Half my problem is knowing who to trust.”

“You can trust me, Patrick.  You can trust me.”’

#

There we must leave Patrick for a while, at the end of the most frenetic and tragic few weeks of his life, to try to resume the ordinary components of living, to return to his work, to his family, to his neglected friends.  It does not make a pretty picture for us, but life has so few masterpieces to admire, and no matter how painful it is to leave them, in the end we must pass them by.  Not without regret, however, and not without damage.

Patrick?  He experienced bitter rage at first, angered by the inviolability of the institutions he kicked at, violent at times when the cold draught of authority once more froze the blood in his veins.  All but a few truest friends deserted him; while those whose love he needed stepped back to allow him room to vent his feelings, which he often did, in diatribes against anyone who suggested acceptance.

Only his colleague Jacqui Greenway understood his agony enough to stand by him in these moods and soak up the blows.  It was Jacqui who wept, and not a little, when he announced he could not work for a local authority any more, that he was turning his back on his intended career.  She would miss him, miss working beside him, but that was not the reason for her tears:  it hurt to see someone destroying himself for a love that was no longer real, something that had become instead a vengeful obsession.

Throughout the winter of that year Patrick drank away his evenings at ‘The Huntsman’, always seated if he could at the table he and Karen had made their meeting place, becoming unjustifiably annoyed if it was taken by other customers.  Then, on a night in the icy January of the New Year, he drove home in a fury that had been building over the months.  He drove as a demon might, fast and then faster, with his eyes aflame and a knot of bitter despair in his heart, neither knowing nor caring how his night would end.  His senses re-tuned by drink had forgotten where the corners were on this stricture of a road, yet he somehow timed them all – all but the last.

Patrick’s precious silver Daimler died there in the cold moonlight; and Patrick, thrown clear as it leapt and turned, nearly died too.  Those who traced the string of wreckage to the place where he lay marvelled at the faint breath which still sustained his life – his wretched, unwanted life.  For three days that life hung by a thread, which, had he been conscious and able, Patrick might have finally cut: only coma prevented him.  But fate, in the hands of a team of medics with a mission to heal, somehow brought him back.

It would be easy to tell you that the tale ended there, and in many ways it did.   Yet the mystery of Karen Eversley’s disappearance remained unsolved and long before this story was drawing to its close a new one was beginning, with the curse of the dark man graven deeply in its pages, and there are things, many things, yet to learn.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content